Sunday, January 20, 2013

Medicus

Medicus
Author: Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury USA, 2006
384 pages

It's been a while since I've read anything set in the days of the Roman empire. To be honest, I was never interested in that time period until I actually visited places where there are Roman ruins. If I'd seen places like Pont du Gard or Ephesus when I was younger, I might have appreciated my history classes more. :)

Medicus (or Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls in the UK) is the first in a series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, a doctor or medicus in the Roman Army. There are currently four other books in the series (US titles: Terra Incognita, Persona non Grata, Caveat Emptor and the just-released Semper Fidelis).

As Medicus opens, Ruso has only recently arrived in Britannia, looking for a place to start over after a divorce. The fortress town Deva (modern-day Chester, England) is about as far as one can go and still be in the Roman Empire. Think frontier town with lots of soldiers and all the businesses that support them, e.g., watering holes and houses of ill repute. Now add natives -- in this case Celts -- some who assimilate and others who don't. Congratulations, you've got a setting with all sorts of interesting storyline possibilities.

When a woman turns up dead and another goes missing, Ruso finds himself becoming a sort of involuntary detective while also juggling things many of us are still juggling two thousand years later: bills, office politics, greedy administrators, family problems, and tricky human nature. Key characters I'm expecting to see more of in future books include Tilla, Ruso's native slave girl (interesting storyline there); Albanus, Ruso's clerk/assistant; and Valens, another medicus who shares mouse-infested quarters with Ruso.

Medicus is a compelling read, and Ruso is a likeable protagonist. It may have been many years since I read a book set during this time period, but I have a feeling I'll be reading the second book, Terra Incognita, sometime soon.